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Kempner's belief that the same potential exists in Galveston puzzles Tillotson. After all, as the newsman slyly points out, the Kempner family has been involved in the running of Galveston, either officially or behind the scenes, for over a century. Even today, Kempner's first cousin, Lyda Ann Thomas, is the sitting mayor. "Who exactly is he saying would be corrupted? Surely he's not saying Lyda Ann Thomas would be corrupted. If not her, who exactly?"
There is already ample opportunity for the would-be crooked local politico, Tillotson says. "I'm not sure that people are any more likely to be corrupted by casinos than they are by our community's traditional wealthy power brokers or other business interests — real estate developers, for example. If a council member is willing to swap votes for money, they'll find ways to do that without casinos."
Two waxy-faced men, tubes in their noses, oxygen tanks by the side of their wheelchairs, cigarettes in their mouths, are gambling away. It's Tuesday night at the Isle of Capri in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and its present-day clientele is a far cry from any romantic notions you might have of Galveston's old Balinese.
But if you are trying to imagine Galveston with casinos, the Lake Charles of today is probably a more useful study than Galveston in the '40s.
At Lake Charles's Isle of Capri, the slots — in all their whirring, glittering, chirping splendor — are king. These are not the simple fruit machines of the past. Today, many are as visually and aurally dazzling as Halo III in Surround-Sound on a plasma-screen TV. In one area, frowsy, fortysomething ladies sit transfixed in adjacent Wizard of Oz-themed machines, mashing bet buttons as fairy harps sigh and a phantasmagoria of Dorothy, Toto, tin men and cowardly lions flashes in front of their eyes. These women make it clear they don't like onlookers intruding on their alternate reality from over their shoulders. Indeed, most patrons don't — it is a very difficult place to strike up a conversation.
Psychologists say those who favor games of skill are "action gamblers." Gambling serves as an adrenaline boost for these extroverts — they get high off beating other players or the house. Those who favor slots are termed "escape gamblers," lone wolves who view gaming as a burn patient views a cool shot of morphine.
Across town at the fancier L'Auberge du Lac, even on a Tuesday, it's hard to find a spot in the parking lot among the several thousand cars with Texas plates. Once inside, it's equally difficult to find even one machine idle. The difference is that here, the poker, craps and blackjack tables are fully engaged and it is at these tables that a surprisingly large number of young, tattooed Vietnamese men congregate.
As it turns out, Gulf Coast Asians are a strong market for the Lake Charles casinos. One of L'Auberge's nine dining options prominently offers "authentic Vietnamese selections," the casino employs Chinese and Vietnamese speaking hosts, and Vietnamese singers appear in the casino's concert venue. On the casino floor, L'Auberge offers visitors a chance to try their hand at pai gow, a Chinese variant of poker.
Still, this is a far cry from the image of the Balinese Room. There's a suburban corporate feel to these casinos, a working-class everyman vibe. You can't picture Howard Hughes, a starlet on each arm, hovering over L'Auberge's roulette wheel, or a Lake Charles casino bartender inventing a legendary cocktail, any more than you could envision Angelina Jolie strolling through an Office Depot on FM 1960.
And where the likes of Sinatra and Ellington performed for the Balinese Room's clientele, the modern-day equivalent is not quite as exciting. Billboards on I-10 tout upcoming shows at the Coushatta casino in nearby Kinder by Brooks & Dunn and what is left of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
On the way back to Houston, it strikes you that Lake Charles's interstate infrastructure seems ludicrously overbuilt for a city of its size. How many cities of fewer than 200,000 people have an interstate loop? Broadway, 61st Street and Seawall Boulevard would have a hard time coping with casino hordes. Kempner thinks that traffic and exhaust fumes are all most Galvestonians would come to associate with the casino trade.
You can see arguments for and against casinos before your eyes. Both major Lake Charles casinos sport huge parking lots — which begs the question of where they could fit in Galveston.
Those lots are also jam-packed with cars with Texas license plates. When you couple that with all the signs touting the many shuttles offering dirt cheap transport from nine pickup points in Houston to the casinos, you realize the magnitude of the cash drain over the Sabine.
Both the Isle of Capri and L'Auberge du Lac are vast complexes that rise mirage-like out of acres of concrete in the middle of nowhere. Each offers in-house restaurants, shops, clubs and lodging, and that underscores one of Kempner's main anti-casino contentions — that Flores and the Strand merchants are fooling themselves if they think casinos will bring them customers. Even in the old days, he says, the Balinese Room knew well how to lock down the junket trade. "When the casinos wanted to attract banquets, they undercut," he says. "They could afford to do that because they can make food, drink, shelter and entertainment a loss leader, and they will do it again."